Is the pope playing a theological shell game?
Amoris Laetitia, the apostolic exhortation, is a document that offers pastoral guidance for Roman Catholic clergy toward the reintegration of Catholics into congregational and sacramental life. Specifically, those Catholics who are divorced and remarried, or who are in other situations referred to as “Irregular unions.” Damon Linker refers to Francis as a ‘stealth reformer’, and charts the path of how he is undoing previous doctrinal positions ever so quietly. A stealth reformer such as Francis, “keeps the doctrines intact but invokes such concepts as mercy, conscience, and pastoral discernment to show priests that it’s perfectly acceptable to circumvent and disregard those doctrines in specific cases. A doctrine officially unenforced will soon lose its authority as a doctrine. Where once it was a commandment sanctioned by God, now it becomes an “ideal” from which we’re expected to fall short. Before long it may be treated as a suggestion. Eventually, repealing it is no longer controversial — or perhaps even necessary.”
Linker has no doubt about Francis’ methods, nor his goal. He means to change doctrine by turning a blind eye to enforcement, and to leaving it to the discretion of parish priests as to whether it is acceptable to admit people to the sacraments. The pope is, in a way, covering his ears and shouting “la! la! la!” He doesn’t want to know or hear about what goes on at individual parishes. Linker expresses consternation with conservative Catholics who are upset by the apostolic exhortation, referring to their “retrograde intransigence.” Where he once espoused the conservative position, Linker seems ready to be done with a Church that refuses any dialogue on issues. Francis has broken this mold, and is a man very different from his two predecessors.
While Linker finds this encouraging and refreshing, others such as Michael Brendan Dougherty, find it a betrayal of the ancient faith. Dougherty agrees with Linker in this: Pope Francis is changing doctrine, if only by obfuscation and evasion. For those who believe this is an impossibility (“As the church teaches and has always taught”), what Francis propagates in the apostolic exhortation is, according to Dougherty, cowardice, confusion, and recklessness. Conservatives recalling the halcyon days of John Paul II and Benedict, doubtless find the current papacy hard to stomach. Convert Luma Simms is also one who all but declares Francis is peddling bad doctrine. She, too, accuses the pontiff of obfuscation, waffling, and of casting believers back on individual, private judgement. Those who insist that the church never changes its doctrinal positions are faced with difficult choices. One matter on which conservative and liberal Roman Catholics are agreed, even as they quibble about method: the pope is changing the teaching of the Church.